vendredi 21 septembre 2012


France is not a car culture, at least not in the American sense.  Oh, it has a strong automotive industry, with the productive (and some years, even profitable) presence of Peugeot, Citroen and Renault, but the arteries of the country are made of steel--thanks to the fantastic SNCF railway system ---and not asphalt.  80% of Parisians don't even have a car, a figure I find astounding until I remind myself of how effectively the Paris métro is at moving people around.
 One has to wonder how Parisian teens find a workaround to the absence of the car.  I'm not talking about transportation---these city kids typically become metro-savvy in their early teens (or when mom gets tired of accompanying them everywhere), riding the subway with ease and skill.   I'm refering to the universal adolescent need for a private space in which to experience that first kiss.  (Or other.)  With no backseat, where do they go?

Enter Wednesday afternoon.

French kids go to school on Saturday mornings.  In exchange, they have Wednesday afternoons free.  This rhythm dates back to the 19th century, when, under the Third Republic, the loi du 28 mars 1882 was put into place, allowing for one day off from academics so that catecism could be taught outside the school.  The "outside the school" part is essential, as it was during this same time that France declared a separation of church and state, driving religious instruction from the public domain to the private, where it sits--in theory, anyway--today.  Why "in theory"?  I still see some holdovers from catholicism present in the public schools in the form of Friday's school lunches which always feature fish.  But the basic tenet of laicité, or secularism, is strongly enforced in France's public schools.  You will never hear "One Nation, under God," or anything of that nature in a French public school classroom.

So Wednesday afternoons get taken up by extra-curriculars.  For young schoolchildren, this time is often devoted to a sport, lunch with the grandparents, or an art class.  There is catechism, of course, for those of that faith.   For the high-schoolers, though, Wednesday is often the day they look forward to the most, especially if said high-schooler has working parents.  They know that for that afternoon only, the apartment is theirs to do with as they wish.  Heaven help the parent of a teenager who comes home unexpectedly on a Wednesday afternoon.

You can observe the importance of "Free Wednesday" in many sweet ways here.  For little children, this is  the traditional day for les goûters d'anniversaires (birthday parties) to be held, which gives them the curious nature of never having any dads present (as they are working).  Cakes and treats will be more plentiful in bakeries (since the children eat lunch at home on that day, rather than in the school cantine); pediatricians and other children's health professionals hold more office hours on Wednesdays to accommodate their patients.  The American Embassy in Paris limits passport appointments on Wednesdays uniquely to those parents coming in with minors.

Wednesday is for birthday parties!

It's lovely, when you think about it, how an entire society shapes itself around this very old law.   Oh, every time there's a new government the notion of "school rhythm" gets examined, and some tweaks are made here and there (Saturday classes were eliminated in the elementary schools a couple of years ago) but I hope the  principal of "Wednesday afternoon off" remains untouched.  As I'm sure my teenage daughters do, as well.

dimanche 2 septembre 2012

Terminal M: A Postmodern masterpiece.

Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport was still in its youth when I first arrived in the City of Light.  Having opened to the public 15 years earlier, its eye-catching central cylindrical core, criss-crossed by clear diagonal tubes through which passengers moved not unlike gerbils in their habitats, struck me as futuristic and totally appropriate for this city, which I had imagined sleek and much more modern than my parochial hometown.  I was awestruck.  Not only was I in Paris, but I was in Spaceage Paris!

Sadly, the main building did not age well through subsequent decades and  most travelers transiting through one of CDG's satellite gates would wonder how a city as refined and sophisticated as Paris could put up with an airport that had become such an eyesore.  Arriving passengers would be greeted with long walks down dimly-lit arched hallways whose ceiling tiles had fallen or were in the process of same, floors whose carpet squares were water-stained and mismatched, and a sad assortment of shops, each manned by weary and disinterested salespeople who looked like all they wanted was to be put out of their misery.  By the year 2000, Charles de Gaulle airport probably was thinking the same thing.

But Aéroports de Paris, the company that manages CDG (among other airports) decided to change all that several years ago.  The lightfilled Terminal 2 opened in 2004 (unfortunately with a mishap occurring on May 23rd of that year, when a large part of the 2E ceiling caved in and killed some travelers) and, as of last July, the sumptuous terminal 2M was unveiled.  This shiny new terminal is a real showcase, and is, in my opinion, one of the most attractive examples of airportolgy I've ever walked through.  Talk about spaceage!  From the postmodern furnishings in the public space to the infinity sinks in the restrooms, everything about 2M says "We Are French and We've Got Class."  

Squiggly chairs in the main hall. 

 Jetson's seating

 Prior to Terminal M opening, a hungry passenger's choices were limited to the pathetic cold offerings of chains such as "Paul".  Now you can sample caviar or oysters, though the latter is probably not a good idea before a long and potentially turbulant transatlantic flight

Fushia and orange makes a statement in the women's restroom

Infinity sinks with motion sensor faucets. 

After clearing security, there's a bench area for slipping back on one's shoes.  The touch of French class?  Each seat has an attached shoe horn.

I didn't get pictures of the shopping opportunities, but trust me, all the big French names are there:  Lancel, Longchamps, Hermès, La Maison du Chocolat, Ladurée and more.  All gorgeously displayed and staffed by salespeople that don't look miserable.

Bravo Paris, for entering a solid contender in the "Word's Most Beautiful Airport" contest.  Now, if you could just get Orly to look a little less like a third-world shack, we'd really have some bragging rights.